This piece appears as part of BERLIN, BERLIN — a week-long virtual celebration of the city. As part of the series, we’ve teamed up with the Keith Haring Foundation to pay homage to one of the artist's most significant works. Shop the collaboration here.
On the cold, gray morning of October 23, 1986, Keith Haring turned on his cassette player, blasted out dance music, and got to work in the looming shadow of the Berlin Wall. The American artist had made a career out of sacrificing his safety for art after years spent tagging the New York City subway system under threat of arrest, but in this foreign city ripped in half by the imposing wall, he found his riskiest canvas yet.
Situated six feet into the territory of East Berlin, the Berlin Wall stood 14-feet-tall and featured guards strapped with guns atop guard towers just feet away. By merely stepping up to it, Haring was risking arrest — or even death.
Dressed in a black set of sweats with Nike sneakers, the American artist spent five hours putting his paintbrush to a 300-foot stretch of cement next to Checkpoint Charlie for the Berlin Wall Mural. Set against a bright yellow backdrop painted for the artist’s arrival, the subject was a series of human figures in red and black linked by their feet and hands — an image meant to signify the quest for unity amongst people, painted in the colors of the German flag.
As he worked, a crowd of reporters and curious West Berliners watched from the ground as a United States army helicopter hovered above the scene. It was a spectacle that prompted the artist to say that it was “the biggest circus I’ve ever seen” to reporters flocking around him.
As much of a circus as it may have been, it was also a bright spot in the city’s dark history. In 1961, three years after Haring was born an ocean away, the communist East German government had built the barrier to stem the flow of millions who had fled their oppressive regime when the border between East and West had been freely crossed. As if overnight, the two governments were separated first by a barbed wire fence, and then, soon afterwards, by the now infamous Berlin Wall built of thick concrete, dotted with guard towers, and further separated with anti-vehicle trenches.
For nearly three decades, it was the most famous section of the massive “Iron Curtain,” a 4,300-mile-long dividing line between the Soviet Union and the West. Over 100 people died trying to cross the Wall, and more than 5,000 East Germans, including hundreds of border guards, succeeded in slipping past it to freedom. It was built to sow fear and divisiveness, and it was the antithesis of everything that Haring believed in.
In the years before traveling to Berlin, the artist had quickly become a fixture in the art world, jumping from obscurity to superstardom in less than a decade. Before the Berlin Wall Mural, Haring had begun selling his works for up to $50,000. He had painted art directly onto Grace Jones’ bare skin and Madonna’s leather jacket; he had done backdrops for MTV and made murals for nightclubs in Manhattan and San Francisco.
But his pop culture bonafides also existed in balance with his activism. He had brought his signature style to the Great Peace March, to anti-apartheid posters, and to anti-crack murals across New York City’s public parks. The themes of his work regularly touched on exploitation, subjugation, drug abuse, HIV, social rights, and the threat of nuclear holocaust.
His activism was at the core of his artistry, which is why in 1986, Haring was personally invited to paint a mural on the Berlin Wall by Rainer Hildebrandt, a German anti-communist resistance fighter and founder of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Haring was by no means the first American artist to paint the Berlin Wall — both Jonathan Borofsky’s Running Man in 1982 and Richard Hambleton’s Shadowmen in 1984 had preceded his Berlin Wall Mural — but Haring was the most prolific of that era.
He was an artist whose politics were indistinguishable from his art, and the political significance of the piece he was tasked to create was not lost on him. Risking death and arrest, he had stepped up to this symbol of division and painted hope and unity across its cement facade.
The objective was never longevity. “The main objective here is that it is not an insignificant act that goes unnoticed,” he explained to The New York Times after finishing the work. “The entire world should know that it happened, reinforcing its political significance.” Within 24 hours of finishing his work, a long section of the mural was painted over with drab gray paint by an artist who told People magazine that “the wall is so dark that it should not be diminished by a childish painting.” A day later, another section had been painted black and, within months, the Berlin Wall Mural was unrecognizable beneath a collage of other artists’ works.
It was only three years later, on November 9, 1989, that the Berlin Wall finally fell as the East German government collapsed in political death. That night, as ecstatic Germans chipped away at the wall with sledgehammers, any remaining trace of Haring’s work was destroyed. Only 100 days later, the artist himself would die of AIDS in his Manhattan home at the age of 31.
Both Haring and the Berlin Wall Mural may no longer physically exist in our world, but their legacies are unbreakable. Haring knew that the importance of artworks like his mural wasn’t in how long they physically stand, but instead in what they stand for. As he wrote in his diary a year after finishing the Berlin Wall Mural: “If it is not regarded as ‘sacred’ and ‘valuable,’ then I can paint without inhibition… It is temporary and its permanency is unimportant. Its existence is already established. It can be made permanent by the camera.”
It has been nearly 35 years since the prolific artist painted the Berlin Wall Mural, but thanks to photographs and the memories of those who experienced it, the piece still feels prophetic — especially in the context of our modern era of division.
We have witnessed a sprawling wall along the Mexico border become a pillar of the Trump presidency. In just the last month, Greece finished a 40km fence at its Turkish border, Turkey promised to add another 64km of fencing to their own border with Iran, and Poland announced plans to extend their anti-refugee wall on the border with Belarus.
Walls and borders aren’t merely physical barriers to stem the flow of people from country to country. They are also symbols whose purpose is to dehumanize the other, to divide “them” from “us.” Haring understood this. Three decades after the paint dried on the Berlin Wall Mural, the lessons Haring sought to distill through that piece are still as relevant as ever.
As reporters swarmed around him on that cold October day under the shadow of the wall, Haring referred to the work as a “humanistic gesture.” More than just a temporary art installation, the mural was a “political and subversive act,” meant to “psychologically destroy the wall by painting it.”